The Trump Campaign Weaponized Data to Exploit Prejudice and Islamophobia
“Hitler attacked the Jews because… he didn’t have a problem with the Jews at all. But the people didn’t like the Jews… so if the people thought… He could just use them to say… so he just leveraged an artificial enemy, well it’s exactly what Trump did. He leveraged a Muslim- I mean, you know, it’s… it was a real enemy… ISIS or whatever… but how big a threat is ISIS really to America? I mean, really? I mean, we’re still talking about 9/11, well 9/11 is a long time ago.”
— Nigel Oakes, Founder of SCL Group, November 24th 2017
This incendiary remark was part of a trove of recordings submitted to the U.K. parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, by propaganda expert Dr. Emma Briant on April 16, 2018. Dr. Briant was compelled to present this evidence to the committee, which is currently investigating Cambridge Analytica (CA) and its parent group, SCL, as part of its inquiry into fake news and the role of social media in spreading misinformation. Cambridge Analytica (CA) was an election management company that has become central in this inquiry following whistleblower Christopher Wylie’s revelations to The Observer. Wylie, a 28-year-old data scientist, helped create the methodology used by CA to create “psychographic profiles” that were used to micro-target voters during election campaigns around the world. The program relied mainly on data harvested from Facebook profiles; as Facebook admits, upwards of 87 million Americans have had their data taken without their knowledge. By 2016, CA had amassed more than 230 million psychological profiles of American voters. In that same year, the Trump campaign hired CA to lead its data operations. With the revelation that Facebook data was being used by third-parties without users’ consent, the U.S. and U.K. governments launched investigations into the role social media platforms played in the 2016 presidential election and the EU referendum, respectively, and what this means for our democratic institutions. The New York Times further revealed Tuesday that the FBI and Justice Department are specifically investigating Cambridge Analytica for its financial dealings and its use and acquisition of Facebook data.
The above-mentioned U.K. Parliamentary committee called on Wylie in March to explain in detail his knowledge of the extent of CA’s role in the Trump campaign and the UK’s Leave EU referendum. They also called on Dr. Briant who, having researched the SCL Group, the parent company of CA, for years as part of her book on propaganda and counter-terrorism, had amassed significant material through the rare access she gained in interviews of CA and SCL personnel. One interview she submitted involved a conversation with the founder of SCL Group, Nigel Oakes. Oakes claims that Hitler did not have any personal animus towards the Jews; rather, he leveraged them as an artificial enemy the same way that Trump “leveraged a Muslim” during his campaign. As much as Oakes discounts the personal prejudices of political figures, he willingly admits, here and elsewhere, that his company knowingly worked to create and leverage an “artificial enemy” that arguably helped decide the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
CA specialized in disinformation, spreading rumors, kompromat and propaganda. […] CA sought to identify mental and emotional vulnerabilities in certain subsets of the American population and worked to exploit those vulnerabilities by targeting information designed to activate some of the worst characteristics in people, such as neuroticism, paranoia and racial biases. This was targeted at narrow segments of the population.
It is impossible to isolate and determine the precise impact of a messaging technique on voter turnout. However, as the reach of social networks continues to expand, as our information continues to be collected in more invasive ways, and as data analytic models become increasingly sophisticated, it is vital to address the impact that data manipulation and the targeted messaging it drives has on our democratic institutions and our society. What role did micro-targeted messaging play in the 2016 presidential campaign? Did this messaging turn up the dial on the widely held anti-Muslim attitudes of Americans? What are the ethical and regulatory decisions the public needs to make regarding the ability of companies to amplify people’s biases? This article looks at how the 2016 Trump campaign weaponized data to purposefully prioritize the emotions of fear and anger that have mainstreamed prejudice, and specifically Islamophobia, in order to win the election.
What Are SCL Group and Cambridge Analytica (CA)?
SCL Group, formerly known as Strategic Communication Laboratory, was a British behavioral research and communications company founded by Nigel Oakes. Established in 1993, the company provided “data, analytics and strategy to governments and military organizations worldwide.” It specialized in “psychological warfare,” “public diplomacy,” and “influence operations,” in an effort to “create behavior change” and marketed itself as the “first private-sector provider of psychological operations.” According to Quartz, SCL had a hand in more than a hundred political campaigns in 30 countries, among them South Africa, India, Philippines, Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya, United States, and the United Kingdom.
It was precisely this military contracting experience that then-Chief Executive of Breitbart News Steve Bannon sought when he engaged SCL to build, as Christopher Wylie claims, an “arsenal of informational weapons he could deploy on the American population.” Bannon, alongside the former director of SCL Alexander Nix, set up Cambridge Analytica (CA) as a subsidiary of SCL. CA had no employed staff and was created solely to allow SCL to operate in the U.S. It was financed with a reported $15 million investment by American hedge-fund billionaire and former close associate of Bannon, Robert Mercer. Mercer’s investment – which did not need to be declared as a campaign contribution – allowed CA to charge campaigns far below market value for its work. Furthermore, Mercer’s involvement stipulated that CA could only advise conservative campaigns. As a front for its parent company, CA also specialized in “election management strategies” and “messaging and information operations,” which Guardian reporter Carole Cadwalladr states, is known as “psyops”-psychological operations- in military circles; such operations work by “acting on people’s emotions.”
Cambridge Analytica’s Use of Facebook Data
In March 2018, Wylie revealed to The Guardian, that he “came up with an idea that led to the foundation” of CA. The idea behind CA was to combine big data and social media with a military methodology – “information operations”- to be used on voters in the United States. Wylie describes it as “full service propaganda machine,” and “shell company”, with clients and intellectual property run through SCL.
Wylie claims it was his methodology that helped CA discover how “young, conservatively-minded whites responded positively to certain phrases, like “drain the swamp”, or “deep state,”… [and the] idea of a big wall to keep out immigrants.” The positive voter response to these phrases and to the leadership style of Vladimir Putin was not being reflected in mainstream media polls, but was identified by Bannon and CA as early as 2014. This information, combined with CA’s improper acquisition of the data of 87 million Facebook users – to which Facebook was later forced admit — was then used, according to Wylie, to “build a system that could profile individual US voters,” and could be used to “wage psychological warfare.”
Coinciding with Wylie’s revelations, the UK’s Channel 4 released video showing CA’s director, Alexander Nix, boasting about “dirty tricks” such as “honey traps, spies, and fake news,” employed by the company to help its clients. Furthermore, Nix also made the somewhat grandiose claim that for the Trump campaign, “We [CA] did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting. We ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign, and our data informed all the strategy.” Later, in an internal audit, CA downplayed Wylie’s involvement and Nix’s claims, and dismissed many of these allegations, including having used Facebook data in its work for the Trump campaign.
Cambridge Analytica, the Trump Campaign, and Islamophobia
In 2016, Robert Mercer’s daughter Rebekah, who sits on the board of CA, introduced the data analytics firm to the Trump campaign. The campaign then paid the company $5 million for its services and proceeded to make Steve Bannon the campaign CEO. As mentioned above, CA specializes in behavioral profiling and has claimed it can produce “psychographic” profiles for every single American adult based on aggregated data, personality, and behavioral surveys that can predict an individual’s political leanings. During CA’s work in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it used this to identify the millions of voters most “open to being persuaded to vote for Trump.” CA stated that with these profiles in hand, it could then “effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations,” appealing to individuals at an “emotional level.” This appeal to the emotional level not only influences people’s ideas but can also reinforce divisive beliefs, something that was very clear during the polarized 2016 U.S. presidential elections. It was a method of creating an “echo chamber” that reinforced people’s beliefs to in order to “remove them from the public forum” – a re-segregation of society that was an impetus of Wylie’s departure.
A recent piece in the New York Times demonstrated the vicious effect that Facebook’s algorithm-driven newsfeed, which promotes content that gets the most engagement from users, can have in less stable countries. Numerous studies show that “content charged by negative, primal emotions like anger or fear, get the most engagement.” This may help to explain why there was a proliferation of misinformation and conspiracy theories promoted on social media platforms during the 2016 presidential election. It may also help us understand why the Trump campaign’s messaging demonized members of marginalized communities, depicting Mexicans as “rapists,” and Muslims and refugees as “terrorists.” Such dehumanizing and xenophobic attitudes were thinly-veiled as issues pertaining to immigration, national security, and the economy. However, data following the elections revealed it was “racial attitudes towards blacks and immigration [that were] the key factors associated with support for Trump” not “economic anxiety.” Claims of economic anxiety were found to in reality to be apprehension over the perceived narrowing of the economic and social gaps between the white majority and historically marginalized groups.
The Bridge Initiative found that the “2016 U.S. presidential season began against a backdrop of already rising Islamophobia in 2015.” The GOP presidential front-runner time escalated “anti-Muslim vitriol,” and made Islamophobia a central policy in his campaign, calling for the shutting down of mosques, a Muslim registry, and a ban on all Muslims entering the country. The campaign also had support from some of the leading anti-Muslim activists and organizations, such as Frank Gaffney, the Center for Security Policy, and Act for America.
A 2016 poll by the Pew Research center found that 65% of Republicans or those who leaned Republican wanted the “next President to speak bluntly even if critical of Islam as a whole when talking about Islamic extremists.” Depicting Muslims and refugees as potential terrorists was a running theme of the campaign that relied on amplifying individuals’ emotions of anger and fear towards Muslims.
Cambridge Analytica, the company financed and founded by some of Trump’s biggest backers and closest advisors, was instrumental in this. CA produced videos in 2015 for a foreign election that Wylie described as blatantly “sadistic” and “Islamophobic.” The company had global experience exploiting these “artificial enemies” and had the data to know that Trump supporters would respond well to xenophobic and divisive messaging. They tailored this messaging to people’s emotions and personality profiles, and the Trump campaign instrumentalized this to further mainstream Islamophobia. While anti-Muslim sentiment had been present in previous elections, the 2016 presidential elections made anti-Muslim sentiment acceptable in public discourse, and a staple of campaign rhetoric.
The Impact of Micro-Targeting on Our Democracy: Why It Matters
The focus on emotional appeals in messaging is not new in American campaigning, or in mass marketing. However, what is unprecedented is the newfound ability of private data analytic companies to harvest an ever-expanding array of people’s personal data to precisely profile and target them, and the inability of the law to keep up. The ability to predict what messages will resonate with voters based on their preconceived prejudices has increased the impact and speed by which “alternative facts” determine the national narrative.
On May 2nd, Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL announced their intention to shut down and file for bankruptcy in both the U.S. and U.K. But their methods, profiles, and data have not shut down with them. The primary funder of CA, Rebekah Mercer, the former CEO of CA, Alexander Nix, and former chairman of SCL, Julian Wheatland, have recently joined the secretive data company Emerdata. (Nix was later removed from the board following the airing of unsavory recordings by the U.K.’s Channel 4). The deputy chairman of Frontier Services Group, the private security firm headed by Blackwater-founder and noted (especially by the Mueller Investigation) Trump associate Erik Prince, is also listed as director. It is not clear exactly what this “data processing” company intends on doing. However, it seems evident from the people assembled that this company will be invested in promoting the same divisive messaging of the 2016 campaign.
Lack of regulatory oversight and public awareness allowed CA to exploit the data of most of the U.S. voter base and pinpoint the bigotry that lay at the heart of what turned out to be an almost unprecedented upset in electoral politics. The methods of this Mercer-funded company elevated the worst of people’s instincts, and provided the data that proved the efficacy of turning debates on immigration into chants of “build the wall” and national security concerns into “banning all Muslims.”
There is no data to precisely isolate the impact of CA on the election outcome. What this article demonstrates is that Trump and the most influential members and donors of his campaign and administration were privy to information that was used to micro-target people’s most base emotions, and that is what happened. Through the use of Cambridge Analytica and the access it gained through Facebook, preexisting bigotry was amplified and turned into a political weapon for the highest bidder. If the financing of the 2018 mid-term elections is any indication of things to come, that leaves the campaign messaging in all levels of the political system, and likely the outcome, up to the few people with enough money to manipulate the public’s most shameful prejudices.